Science doesn’t cover everything, says author Brian Thomas Swimme

Author Brian Thomas Swimme is a professor at the California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco. Photo: Counterpoint Press

Those who know him as a longtime professor at the California Institute for Integral Studies in San Francisco and the likable star of the Emmy-winning documentary “Journey of the Universe” might imagine that Brian Thomas Swimme’s professional rise has taken a turn for the worse. proceeded smoothly. Not so. Decades ago, as a young mathematician teaching at the University of Puget Sound, he was mired in a crisis.

It was the early 1980s, and Swimme was troubled that the Pentagon and corporate America were using colleges like his as talent pools. During this time, he became increasingly convinced that humans needed more than complex equations to understand the universe. Swimme had arrived at a crucial moment in his fledgling career. He handled the stress, he writes in “Cosmogenesis: An Unveiling of the Expanding Universe,” by “freeze-drying my system with” vodka.

Swimme characterized this chapter of his life as “a breakdown – it was a worldview breakdown” that left him feeling like “a tool for others”.

“Science, by focusing only on knowledge without any thought about what it ultimately means to a human being, has left us in the situation where we are basically passing our knowledge on to corporations and the military,” he said. . “We were forming young minds without giving them a sense of who they really were.”

He knew something was wrong, Swimme added, but he “wasn’t able to articulate that when I was a young teacher.”

Forty years later, he tried his luck. “Cosmogenesis” is the most personal of Swimme’s half-dozen books, a humble and thought-provoking memoir of a time when he stepped off the academic treadmill and forged a transformative intellectual friendship.

Swimme, 72, was nearing his thirties when his seizure began. As a boy, he says, he was brought up “in what might be called early history – the religious, in my case, Catholic view.” When he was an undergraduate at Santa Clara University and a graduate math student at the University of Oregon, he “encountered the thrill of scientific understanding.”

Bruce Bochte dated Santa Clara alongside Swimme, and they went on to collaborate on several projects, including an origin of the universe video series. In a telephone interview, Bochte, an Oakland A first baseman in the 1980s, told The Chronicle that one of Swimme’s enduring traits is “an openness – an open mind that is in a constant state of wonder, curiosity, exploration”.

Early in his career, however, Swimme’s Catholic upbringing and enthusiasm for math and physics began to collide.

“It didn’t really strike me until I was a young teacher,” he said, “but the inconsistency of these two stories – they don’t go well together. That’s what when it reached its climax.

In 1981 Swimme quit his job in Puget Sound and began what he describes in the book as “a year-long conversation with Thomas Berry,” a Catholic priest and scholar who sought to bridge the gap between spirituality and science. “Cosmogenesis,” informed by notes Swimme took at the time, includes heady exchanges between Swimme and Berry; many of them relate to what Berry called “a disease of the intellect” – a mindset that prevents scientists from recognizing that complex equations do not unravel all the mysteries of the universe.

“I don’t believe that at our stage of development, we humans have the cognitive abilities to understand the deeper dynamics at work in the universe,” Berry tells Swimme in the book. “Science,” Berry said on another occasion, “gave birth to our technological power, which we use to rob the Earth of its vitality.”

Brian Thomas Swimme’s latest book, “Cosmogenesis: An Unveiling of the Expanding Universe.” Photo: Counterpoint Press

Mary Evelyn Tucker, Swimme’s co-writer on the 2011 book “Journey of the Universe” and collaborator on the documentary of the same title, read early drafts of “Cosmogenesis.” She said the book presents a personal narrative of a kind not often seen.

“It brings the perspective of someone trained in science and math to explain why studying the universe in a scientific, empirical way, or in a reductionist, data-driven way can dampen our sense of awe. , wonder, beauty, complexity and engagement with these processes,” Tucker said in a phone interview.

Based on his exchanges with Berry, Swimme wants to demonstrate that believing in science does not prevent recognizing that there is a spiritual dimension to human life. It’s a third rail for many who work in scientific fields, where admissions of atheism are common.

“We speak in a certain sense of God,” he said of his use of the word “spiritual,” but “the difficulty with the word God” is that it is often associated with a rejection of science. . “I like to talk in terms of: We’re talking about an intelligent universe. And we’re talking about a universe that aims to produce something.

“One of my main thinkers is (the late British philosopher and mathematician) Alfred North Whitehead, who says the universe aims for beauty,” he continued. It “isn’t something that can be proven, but I think ideas like this can be experienced in an intuitive sense.”

After teaching full-time at the California Institute of Integral Studies from 1990 to 2019, Swimme transitioned to part-time. He has also taken on a leadership role with Human Energy, a non-profit organization which, according to its website, aims to inspire a sense of “meaningful unity” within the “global human society”. Swimme knows some observers will dismiss such notions out of hand, but he thinks it’s perilous to organize a society around the idea that everything can be explained by science.

Such a perspective, he said, “negates meaning. We see it in confusion and doubt and the rise in suicides, especially among young people. They are looking for a broader view of things. I’m not saying what I’ve done will be satisfactory, but I certainly think we have a responsibility to deliver something greater.

“I find it hard to believe that the universe evolved for 13.8 billion years so that we could dedicate our lives to being consumers,” he added. “There just has to be something more going on.”

Cosmogenesis: an unveiling of the expanding universe
By Brian Thomas Swimme
(Counterpoint; 336 pages; $27)

Books Inc. presents Brian Thomas Swimme: 7 p.m. Tuesday, November 15. Free. 2251 Chestnut St., SF


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